For a long time, I kept a Plan B pill in the same small silver jewelry case where I kept my laxatives. I’d received the box as a bat mitzvah present, and it was engraved with some Hebrew phrase I’d long forgotten the meaning of. Using it for this purpose felt appropriate, since I never felt more like a woman than when I was desperate to forget something I’d let inside me.
I took Plan B cavalierly and callously, making jokes to my friend in line at the pharmacy. We’d read the articles that said taking it too many times could fuck with our future fertility, but we didn’t think that far ahead, or we didn’t care, or we thought we were too special. Our bodies? Taut and hot and able to run for miles, bench press and bounce back from a hangover? They were working well, firing on most cylinders, and we couldn’t conceive of them failing at anything, especially conception. When we got grease on our fingers from the pizza we’d just ordered as a hangover Hail Mary, we made jokes about the ways we mistreated our organs. We ended up laughing so hard we weren’t sure what the stomachache was from anymore. Children? In this economy? They’d like, probably die in a tsunami. At this rate we probably would too. Might as well enjoy the pizza while we can, what the hell, is it too early to start drinking?
So my friends knew about the Plan B, and most of them had taken it too, but they didn’t know about the other plan B I resorted to when I retreated to my apartment. Restless and reaching for the only real-life undo I knew, the laxatives that would reverse the decisions I made in pursuit of fleeting pleasure, and prevent the repercussions I couldn’t live with.
There are a lot of things I wish I’d never let inside me. There are dicks and food and ideas and ideologies that didn’t daunt me back then, despite their heft. Now, I’d give anything to take back the decision to open my legs or my mouth or my mind if I could. Young and prideful, prone to rolling my eyes, I thought I could handle it. Growing up in a suburb of DC on the cusp of the girlboss era, getting bought Business Barbie and President Barbie and Seventeen magazine and Time for Kids magazine, I thought I didn’t have to choose between beauty and brains, because I didn’t have to choose between anything. Constant consumption was encouraged; little girl, big world, open wide and eat it all up. What a voracious reader. She must be going through a growth spurt, that appetite, where did all that food go? She devours all the magazines and newspapers in this house. Called on in school and cooed over at home, I am told I am wanting correctly, this appetite is appropriate, even exceptional.
Until. I miss a memo, and the girls around me don’t miss me at all. I eat the fries off their trays in the cafeteria right up until there isn’t a seat for me, and it’s only then that it occurs to me—too late—that they might have been hungry after all, and I was supposed to be hungry too. The switch is sudden, blink and you miss it, head stuck in a book and mouth full, chewing too loudly to hear the announcement.
Imagine a radio show only just-turned-teenage girls get access to. Ladies, time’s up! Hope you enjoyed your trial run, all those free samples. You are now entering the next period (have you gotten yours yet?), this one is called the rest of your life, and there are limits. Look up the word metabolism, yours is going to slow down soon. Think about time, you only have a limited amount. That personality of yours? A little much, don’t you think? Make it memorable–– brands have to be simpler than all that to stick in the mind. Make yourself easy to swallow, oh, and don’t swallow as much as you have been. You look confused; you’ll catch on. We wanted you to want everything, but if you keep taking it all, you’ll get a big head and a bigger stomach.
Women have been taught to strive for smallness for centuries, and until recently, the most popular strategy for self-shrinking was the most straightforward: dieting, a reduction in caloric intake. Taken to extremes, diets can become diseases, and anorexia, observed anecdotally since the medieval era but only named in the late 1800s, was for a long time the only eating disorder recognized by the medical establishment. In 1979, the first scientific study on bulimia nervosa was published, and the following year bulimia nervosa was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder characterized by a bingeing, purging, and a “morbid fear of becoming fat.” Throughout the 1980s, prevalence of bulimia skyrocketed. Two years after its addition to the DSM, one study found 4.2% of female undergraduates suffering from bulimia, and the disease’s prevalence in the adult population quickly outpaced anorexia’s, a trend that has continued until today, when 0.9% of American women will develop anorexia over the course of their lifetime, while 1.5% will struggle with bulimia. In 1984, The International Journal of Eating Disorders published a paper titled “Five Bulimic Women,” investigating the psyches of those afflicted with what they called “this puzzling, although widespread syndrome.” The same year, Frederic Jameson published The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, outlining the restructuring of contemporary life around commodification and consumption. In a society defined by extremes of all types, on constant consumption and an emphasis on individualism, self-discipline, and self-surveillance, the eating disorder that allows for extreme indulgence followed by painful penance reigned, and it has not yet given up the throne
Over the course of the 1980s, bulimia went from a novel diagnosis to an epidemic, with the International Journal of Eating Disorders publishing a study in 1990 that found 4.1% of American women aged 18–30 (from a random sample of thousands) suffering from the disease. This was, not coincidentally, the “ ‘Greed Is Good’ Decade,” the decade of Dynasty, MTV, the rise of the shopping mall, the coining of the phrase “retail therapy,” and the birth of Shopaholics Anonymous to help “binge shoppers” kick their habit. Since then, bulimia has only become more entrenched in the Western psyche, as the war on obesity met the rise of foodie culture, and we learned to photograph and post both our meals and our workout regimens. Bulimia offers an escape from this double bind, a way not to have your cake and eat it too, but to eat your cake without anyone knowing you ever had it.
On the “explore” page of Instagram and TikTok, I am served up high-definition, portrait-mode photos of triple layer cakes as often as influencers wearing workout separates in plank poses and celebrities selling appetite suppressant lollipops. The rest of our consumer economy also besieges with dueling imperatives, imploring us to indulge and then preaching restriction, as our feeds fill with algorithmically defined perfect-for-us products that are only a click away, while exhortations to closet-cleanse, to purge ourselves of products in a Marie Kondo–inspired exorcism, pop up in the next square.
The guilt is sitting in our stomachs, so heavy we can’t even sit up straight. We get on all fours or lie down, letting gravity have its way with us. We can carry bursting bags of groceries, but all that heavy lifting is exhausting, and we’re not superhuman. We are disgusting and disgusted with ourselves, and then we remember. Maybe we aren’t superhuman, but we’ve trained for this. Our bodies aren’t boring, basic vessels. Our bodies do tricks and disrupt cycles. So we put our fingers in our throats or take the laxatives, and take it all back: the food and the self-hatred, and then we are purged and proud.
We wanted to wipe the blackboard clean. We wanted a blank page and an empty bowl, ready to be refilled. But when we finally get off the bathroom floor, cleansed, the mirror shows us that we haven’t even wiped our mouths clean. Puffy faces and skin like a sack; you shouldn’t look like this, after all that work, we tell ourselves. Shame seeps into the saliva between our teeth; the aftertaste is awful. So we start again, not least to get the taste out of our mouths. What do we have to lose? We can always get rid of it and say we didn’t. Get good, and no one notices.
The wanting and the wasting and the again, again, again, like a baby, burping and barfing. The hiccups and the emptiness after, a mind space almost as blank as the numb high, with the half-chewed food going down in two swallows.
Nestled between bloody intestines are our darkest desires, which aren’t really that dark at all. They’re bright, really, actually downright futuristic when you think about it. We want bodies like iPhones, constantly getting upgraded to higher storage capacity and slimmer width. We want a delete button, a double tap to empty trash. No take-backs, it’s impolite, we were taught that young. But the fantasy of unlimited undos, the ability to take it all back so the body is returned to the state it was in pre-binge, and so no one else knows, is repeated over and over again in accounts of bulimia.
“They don’t reemerge in their entirety, and I begin to panic,” Stephanie Covington Armstrong writes of the feeling of fear she got when she was not able to purge everything she’d eaten. Elsewhere, she writes that “bulimia was magic” because she could “eat whatever I wanted and never gain weight. And most important, no one would ever see.” So-called “binge and purge shoppers” experience this magic too, receiving thousands of dollars worth of merchandise on their doorstep only to open, touch, and return.
Portia de Rossi once told an interviewer that bulimia allowed her to “erase feelings with food,” and “erase the food by vomiting.” From another bulimic, interviewed for an academic study: “I love eating high calorie foods with no sense of guilt, something I can only do if I know that the food will be evacuated from my body in all its gooey, sticky, lubricated glory.” This erasure is at the core of all bulimic behavior. Under cover of late-night dark, we can buy boxes and boxes of clothes, binge whole seasons of a TV show, swallow thousands of calories, and then change our minds, print a return label, refresh the web browser, take a pill, and pretty soon, pretend it never happened.
“Binge and purge no guilt lol” someone tweets. Another account, called @bulimic_dreams writes about “flushing the problems away like nothing happened.”
“There’s no proof,” Princess Diana said of the disease. “So you can pretend the whole way through.”
A bulimic girl is in a speeding car. Paparazzi are tailgating, in sedans and on motorcycles, racing each other to sate our hunger for her. Maybe you’re imagining Diana, but more than one bulimic has found themself in a fast-moving car, about to go up in flames. Three years old and not making memories yet at Diana’s death, I first encountered this series of events in another two bulimic’s lives. In 2005, a year after she released “Rumors,” a song about the claustrophobia of being stalked by the paparazzi and trying to party away our judgmental comments, Lindsay Lohan’s Mercedes was hit by a paparazzi. A year later, a Vanity Fair profile opened with a description of the paparazzi that continue to follow her everywhere, who “chronicle her trips to tanning salons and contribute to her car wrecks.” She admits to her bulimia in the same profile, and the writer reports that she ordered a suspiciously high number of cake slices at their dinner.
I also saw this story in a Gossip Girl episode. Blair, engaged to a European prince, attempts to run away from her royal future with an old boyfriend, but paparazzi chase them into a tunnel and they hit a wall.
But Diana, the people’s princess, the first modern girl. She might have brought us modernity, but she died at the mercy of our modern appetite for gossip and downfalls and living vicariously, as well as our appetite for reinvention, for clean slates. Appetites that have always existed, but for which we didn’t always have the machinery to get a fix so immediately. Sucking down information about someone else’s life can make you feel less alone, but reading gossip voraciously can leave you as disgusted with yourself, with the bloat in your mind. A binge, Diana told the BBC in 1995, leaves you “disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and then you bring it all up again.”
Diana was born at the beginning of a massive spike in the UK’s divorce rate, a novel form of saying “never mind” for our new age, one where the old rule of no take-backs no longer applies. The total number of divorces occurring annually in the UK doubled in the first decade of Diana’s life. At the end of that decade, her parents divorced, and by the end of the next, the rate would double again, not declining until the late nineties, mere years after Diana’s own divorce. On the other side of the Atlantic, the tallies were similar, doubling between 1960 and 1972, the year the doctor who would define bulimia met the first eating disorder patient who did not fit the anorexia diagnosis. Divorce rates continued their upward trajectory throughout the 1970s and 80s, as states followed California’s 1970 lead in legalizing no-fault divorce . After Diana’s divorce, magazines gushed over her new look and her new lifestyle. Diana was a woman doing it all, humanitarianism and hedonism, hugging AIDs patients and then tanning on a yacht with her new man. One outlet wrote that she “had been visibly reborn,” her divorce wiping the slate, setting her up for a new life, complete with a new body on display in a bikini.
In one of the many, many articles and personal essays and post-mortems about Diana’s role in bringing the House of Windsor into the modern era, Megan Garber elegizes Diana’s “unruly humanity.” Her unruly humanity is posited as both the reason for her staying power and the reason for her lifelong battle with crippling, consuming sadness—stiff upper lips were not Diana’s specialty, she was more of a wobbling lip kind of girl, on the brink of tears or bursting into laughter. Her fame inspired everyone around her to loosen their lips after her death. Both her wedding dress designer and her personal chef told tabloid writers what her body looked like, how she shaped herself through effort and pain.
Unruly implies overflow, a broken dam. Her emotions spilled on marble floors and out of crystal glasses, staining expensive dresses and even pricier reputations. Diana’s unruly humanity, her primal instincts, the animal urges she couldn’t quite tame. A fictionalized Diana played by Emma Corrin made her first appearance in the hugely popular Netflix series The Crown this winter. In one episode, she accompanies her husband on a diplomatic trip to New Zealand. She climbs the steps of the private jet as people scream her name, and then the screen goes black.
Against the dark, we hear heavy breathing. Suddenly, a close-up on a man’s face, painted over with geometric designs. He is chanting rhythmically, eyes wide and then squinting, lips pursing and opening fast. We only see him, but other voices join in and clap along. As the chanting continues, we are back with Diana, pacing her hotel room. Then we go back to the man and get a pan out, see him on a stage in a fringed skirt with a group of other men, performing for a group of white people wearing suits. The Prince and his team are watching some kind of performance of indigienous dancing put on for their benefit. For the next two minutes, the screen switches back and forth between Diana in her hotel room and the dancing, jumping, chest-beating, chanting men, who offer the soundtrack to her “unruly humanity” overwhelming its edges. She paces, and then she breaks. She lifts the top off a silver tray and starts eating. Then she is over the toilet, heaving to the rhythm of their chants, back curving up and then arching, and then the collapse and the quiet. The men exhale slowly; she shakily breathes towards her reflection in the mirror. Then, the bed, the tears.
The way the scene splices seems to imply an invisible string between the indigenous chanting and dancing ritual and Diana’s bulimia. Obviously, the parallel is racist, forcing indigenous people into a Western stereotype of painted faces, loincloths, bare skin, buff chests, and ritualistic heavy breathing accompanied by dancing and chanting. The insinuation is that these indigenous people have a deeper connection to their “primal” nature, to animal urges and animal movements, and Diana’s bulimia is presented similarly. Her wide, wide wants are un-evolved, animal, civilized adults don’t eat like that. The fingers in her throat—like a baby being burped, on all fours like a dog—sends the message home hard.
The endless association of bulimia with animalism, with primal urges and primal shames, serves to dehumanize bulimics, to inspire disgust, an emotion intended to obscure the similarity between the way we cope with modernity and the way everyone else does. Bulimics tried to cheat the system, bent over a toilet instead of just abstaining from that cake, and the viewer is meant to be grossed out, to think they got what they deserved, curled up on cold tiles.
In college, I stole bags of chips from the library cafe. There was an element of fantasy, of sidestepping the system, like something I stole wouldn’t get added to the caloric scoreboard. Drunk, I got bolder and more desperate for a thrill; with my inhibitions under a thick scrim of liquor, my hunger wanted something substantial to gnaw on. I stole candy bars and muffins and whole loaves of bread from the grocery store and stuffed chunks of bread in my mouth on my walk home in the cold, taking side streets because I knew, even in my drunken stupor, that I didn’t want to be seen. By the time I got home I’d be finished with at least half of what I’d purchased. With the lights off in the dorm kitchen, I’d finish the rest pawing at packaging blindly and swallowing hard to get it all down. Pop a laxative, cry myself to sleep, and tomorrow would be a new day, painful in the morning, but by noon I’d be back at the dining hall for my favorite meal of the week: buffet brunch.
I realized I was a pawn a long time ago, to a multitude of forces I don’t respect and don’t believe in. But, in the words of another bulimic, Annie Ernaux, “understanding shame does not give the power to erase it.” When I go directly from the bagel store to the Goop store with a stomach-ache and self-hatred in my veins, and pick up metabolism-boosting tablets and appetite-suppressing vinegars, I am behaving, in one scholar’s word, like “the ideal consumer,” the “dieter” who “will spend a lot on food and even more to lose weight—and the cycle never stops.”
The dieter consumes and consumes, but she also tries to stop. This makes sense, considering the competing imperatives to experience pleasure via consumption but also to experience pride in refusing that pleasure, in self-discipline over our bodies. Hence the war on obesity coming across more like a war on the obese, on those who have failed to manage this dialectic, and gotten stuck in its quicksand instead.
The bulimic looks at this situation, throws her head back and laughs at this sad little array of options. The dieter isn’t the consummate consumer, the bulimic is. She’s best at everything, so she’s figured out a way to keep consuming without the consequences, to obey the dueling directives while onlookers watch, spellbound and a little nervous. If she’s not obeying the laws of gravity, won’t she eventually hit the ground?
In an article in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Dr. Linda Riebel investigates the “secret grandiosity” of bulimics, writing that they “blithely ignore … the bodily havoc wrought by bulimia,” working from the assumption that “I’m special, so I can get away with it: eat without getting fat, purge without getting ill.” Sounds a little like American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny hits the buffet. “I was the Miss America of purging,” a former bulimic says in an interview published in the Psychiatry journal. “I was the best … I could always make the food come up … It was amazing what I could do.”
In the 2018 Facebook Watch show Queen America, a middle-aged bulimic trains prospective pageant queens. We watch her whisper in one mentee’s ear, as she struggles to sprint on a treadmill, “What you are today isn’t good enough. That’s why they call it the American Dream.” This bulimic woman, from her perch in a Mcmansion stocked with wine and collagen pills, preaches exhibitionism, consumerism, and the Protestant ethic simultaneously.
The bulimic mindset, always in search of that iPhone reset to factory settings, waiting for her software update, can start sounding like a Silicon Valley bro about to “move fast and break things” to get her way, life hacking her way to hotness. One bulimic in Riebel’s study said: “It seems as if the rules don’t apply to me … no remedy is needed, it’s easy to solve. I don’t have to admit error; I’m above being inconvenienced.” The bulimic becomes the girlboss, disrupting diet culture.
But like those Silicon Valley bros, her disruption of the system is only replicating that very system, and just like the system, she has a dark underside. Eventually, it all comes back to that unruly humanity, to too much pride and broken dams. Our bodies are not machines, and the machines we make affect our bodies. Endless consumption overfills the landfills, and the toxic chemicals leach into the groundwater and poison us. The seas rise and flood cities. The bulimic’s teeth rot and fall out, stomach acid ruins her plumbing, and in extreme cases her stomach literally bursts mid-binge, or she has a heart attack mid-purge. Bulimics eventually break down, break bones, and break their own hearts.
One of the audio memes I return to over and over again on TikTok is a girl’s voice, vocal fry lilting into the valley of the vacuum, the rectangles stammering into infinity on my screen. “Every guy thinks that every girl’s dream is to find the perfect guy,” she says, before she tells the truth. “No, every girl’s dream is to eat without getting fat, duh.” The original audio was recorded by a user called @stickaforkinme, and last time I checked, there were more than 2,000 videos using it. Most of the videos feature montages of foods that might be called “indulgent” or “sinfully good” in a food magazine. There are burrata balls breaking, cheese getting dumped on fries, packages of Oreos being ripped open, Nutella oozing out of a croissant, crème brûlée being cracked with a fork, a hamburger topped with mozzarella sticks under a piece of fried chicken, spaghetti served in a bread bowl, four-layer grilled cheeses with spicy mayo poured on top, and I could go on.
What the TikTok gets at so incisively, making mouths water and heads nod, is the notion that even in her dreams, the girl knows she can’t have all the food she wants and the romance she wants. Every guy thinks that every girl’s dream is to find the perfect guy. No, every girl’s dream is to eat without getting fat, duh. In order to win in romance, girls are taught, we must restrain ourselves. Capitalism encourages constant consumption while whispering “choose wisely” and applauding ascetics.
The Instagram squares are filled with beautiful women eating junk food. Limbs are long and pizza is greasy. A selection: A tan woman sits in a booth at In ’N’ Out burger, a tray in front of her heaped with golden fries, a double-stack burger, and a milkshake. An aerial shot shows a woman on her back in bed, in nothing but a bra and underwear, surrounded by packaged snack foods: Chips Ahoy, mini-muffins, Hostess, ice cream sandwiches. A woman is photographed straight on, but only from mid-thigh to bra line, thigh gap yawning, jar of Nutella in an outstretched hand. In all these photos, neck veins bulge and collar bones and clavicles jut, stomachs tilt inwards.
This Instagram account is called You Did Not Eat That, and its raison d’etre is calling out women for posing with food the account owner does not believe they actually ate, based on the curvature of their visible bones and circumference of their limbs.
Twenty-first century food systems encourage bingeing. Processed food in large packages and fast-food meals that often clock in at thousands of calories are normalized purchases. Studies have shown that fast food and processed snacks are “hyperpalatable,” inciting biological reactions that make you want to keep eating. At the same time, living in the wellness industrial complex, we are expected to engage in “self-management” of the body, making individual choices for our health, so those who eat along the lines the food system encourages end up demonized when they become obese and are cast as a drain on public health. Time and again, the rise in obesity across the world, and especially in the West, has been tracked and correlated with this change in our food systems.
The same correlations between food systems and bulimia have been studied far less, but follow similar patterns. Ian Pirie outlined these in the Sociology of Health and Illness in 2016, finding that meal portions in fast food restaurants clock in at almost exactly the number of calories bulimics record eating per binge in outpatient treatment. When bingeing is encouraged by our food system and deemed irresponsible by our culture, purging can seem like a good option.
Scrolling through You Did Not Eat That from this vantage point, I wonder how many of those women actually did eat that, only to get it out of their bodies as quickly as possible, locking themselves in the bathroom as soon as the photo shoot ended.
Influencers keep issuing denials. Lying through whitened teeth and suddenly suppler lips, the girls claim it’s late puberty or lip gloss, and we can’t prove them wrong. We can try, and we do try, with Instagram accounts and blogs developed to posting side-by-side images of faces we think are before and after someone stuck a needle in them. But if they are lying, we will never know for sure. There are no sacks of silicone an X-ray can reveal aren’t inserted, no scar we can point to, and if she did get an injection in her lips or her cheekbones or her forehead or her ass, it’ll wear off in a few months, and she can claim weight loss or aging, or she’ll get it re-upped, and she can claim her wellness and workout regimens are working. The thing is, they can take it back. The effects of the injections will be gone within months.
A celebrity surgeon and injection expert interviewed for a Buzzfeed article reportedly keeps controversial model Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook, Cravings, on his desk. An innocuous detail, or maybe, an insidious one. Teigen, a former Sports Illustrated model, is pictured on the cover of the book and over and over again in its pages, biting into a chicken wing in a bathing suit or grabbing a glob of cheese with her bare hands, lips locked into an O of desire. Cravings and its follow up Cravings: Hungry for More offers recipes that get called “indulgent” in every review I can find online. Teigen is an object of animosity on eating disorder forums, where people complain that she doesn’t look like she’s eating all that. In a thread titled “I’m over Chrissy Teigen,” one user wote “but she literally looks amazing and never gains any weight. HOW?!” Another speculates that she is “getting fat sucked out” of her body surgically. The plastic surgeon who displays Chrissy’s book in his office probably doesn’t know about these forums, but he probably assumes the women sitting across from him in the consulting chair get cravings they wish they could resist sometimes. What his office is offering is Chrissy on the cover, treating herself but reaping no physical consequences, a body that curves like it’s been carefully carved that way.
The market for facial injectables was valued at almost $9 billion last year, growing over 40 percent in the last five years, and is expected to grow at a rate of 11 percent per year for the rest of the decade. The first injectable facial filler was legalized in 1981, just one year after bulimia was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A BuzzFeed article headlined “Why Fillers Are the Go-To Beauty Hack For Millennials” argues that the instant results and ease of access (quick procedure times with no downtime for healing) render injectables more popular with millennials than the arduous process of going under the knife, and there’s the added benefit of the plausible deniability associated with something that doesn’t leave a scar. The word “hack” is haunting here, implying that our bodies and faces are as hackable as the iPhone we are using to take a selfie or the computer we are googling cosmetic dermatologists on.
She is in the grocery store, gripping a smoothie in one hand and resting the other on a display of sweet potatoes. She is slurping up spaghetti for #nationalpastaday. Cheese stretches from her mouth to the burger in her hands. She is at McDonald’s, and then she is at In ’N’ Out. She is sticking out her tongue, which is stained blue from the Slurpee in her hand. Takis are purportedly her favorite snack, popping up throughout the Instagram grid. In some photos, her ribs are visible, bulging beneath her skin. In one of these photos, a fan comments “your body is perfect.” In others, she has pronounced abs. Sometimes she looks emaciated, collarbones protruding into a hard V. Other times, she can be described as “slim thick,” with wide hips and a butt that looks like it is defying gravity, which it isn’t, because she is not a three-dimensional girl.
Miquela Sousa, known on social media as Lil Miquela, is a CGI influencer who calls herself a robot. Her feed isn’t very different from the average human influencer’s, however, and neither is the cognitive dissonance inspired by the food she shows herself eating and the body she shows off eating it. Sure, she didn’t eat that. But do we really believe the human influencers are? If we believe they swallowed the ice cream dripping onto their hands because it’s melting over the course of the photo shoot, or the fries going from crisp to limp as she changes poses, we definitely don’t believe she kept the calories. Whether it’s via exercise or excretion, we know these bodies are processing calories faster than average.
Influencer bodies are well-oiled machines, lubricated with immunity shots and cleansed of toxins. Diet culture and the wellness industrial complex are happy to hire those girls as spokeswomen to sell us the tools for our next tune-up. The rhetoric of bodily optimization makes us think of our bodies as machines, exercise regimens and juice cleanses as oil changes or speed washes. We made all the machines, so when we think this way, we think we made ourselves too, and blame ourselves when our body doesn’t match the blueprint we so painstakingly designed.
Within this matrix, which might as well be The Matrix, Miquela makes more sense than most influencers. At least she’s honest. How’d she get that body? girls ask, hungry for some hope in their bedrooms or in a stall of the bathroom or sitting alone at lunch, cafeteria tray pushed away. They ask all their favorite influencers, and the human ones tell them to check out their latest what-I-eat-in-a-day video and their favorite workouts listicle and their colonic specialist and their wellness gift guide. Miquela just virtually shrugs and says a team of developers built it, lol.
When I woke up in the all-white apartment in the financial district, thirty stories above the cobblestones I’d twisted my ankle on the night before, falling out of the Uber, my first thought was science fictional. I squeezed my eyes shut against the bright sunlight slapping me in the face, and desperately daydreamed about a giant ctrl + z button I could click on my whole life, especially the last twelve hours. I wanted to undo so much: not asking about a condom, not asking this boy what his last name was before letting him help me into a car when I couldn’t quite stand, not letting my need for this body I’d worked so hard to craft to be validated, sending me right into a bed I didn’t want to be in.
I couldn’t take back all of it, but I could get close to undoing the first part. When I took it out of the box, I was surprised by how closely the Plan B pill resembled the laxative tablets I bought at the same pharmacy. Weird, I thought as I fell asleep, this pain sort of feels laxative sharp, like someone was wringing out my organs like a wet towel.
Later, I learned to recognize the way Plan B pain evolved, veered away from the series of pangs and skittering stabs I was familiar with from the laxatives. Plan B pain didn’t come in those fits and starts; it settled instead into a stretching sensation, like toddlers were playing tug of war with my intestines, and then they broke the rope and singed the rough edges with a match, leaving them softly sizzling for hours.
Both pains felt purgative though, purifying. Like rubbing alcohol on an open wound or a stinging skin scrub sloughing off dead skin, this was cleansing pain that would leave me renewed. Finally, I’d be empty again. Which really meant I’d be ready to start refilling myself, chewing and swallowing and slurping.
At twenty-two or -three or -four, I sometimes woke up on friends’ couches and they told me I’d vomited into a bush or a bag or the back of a cab the night before. The first feeling, and I’m ashamed of this now, but I’d always feel it before the shame and the cold sweat, was a sublime calm, a relief so raw it was anesthetic, overwhelming. Thank god, I’d think, I got all those calories out of me, the cocktails and the shots and the drunkenly ordered fried food. I was grandiose and grateful to my body, quietly complimenting it on its efficacy as a machine that maintained its minimization of itself. Not remembering the moment itself, blacking out the pain, just felt like further optimization. Calories consumed but not counted. I imagined my stomach empty save for a small pool of acid, my engine oil.
Recently, I heard Demi Lovato discuss her bulimia on a podcast. Demi told Jamila Jamil that she had to start thanking her body for the ways in which it did function in order to avoid falling back into bulimia. Believing her body could be optimized was the problem, it created a mirage of slenderness always a little further ahead. Feeling gratitude for the feats her body had performed in all its messy fleshiness—surviving multiple overdoses, creating music, giving pleasure—allowed her to accept that the smaller, streamlined version might never be hers. This is an epiphany I experienced eventually too, once my unruly humanity got the better of the bot body I was pretending I could force into existence.
Demi came from a long line of bulimics. Her mother, and her grandmother before her, were bulimic before bulimia existed in the official medical lexicon. The family lived in Dallas, where her mother was a Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleader. She was named Demetria but would go by Demi from the beginning, a word that means half, or small.
Demi has said that her earliest memories of her mother’s bulimia are from ages two and three, so they are also probably some of her earliest memories, full stop. Listening to her voice, I slip into speculation, wondering about the first time Demi sought to undo the way so many of us have. Perhaps she remembers her mother offering her food, the sound of water running far too long in the bathroom, knowing somewhere in the back of her mind that her mother wasn’t showering in there. She began looking at her stomach, the small hill of it when she lay on her back in bed, sucking her breath in and wondering how to get it to stay like that, caverned in. Her mother waved a pom-pom from a poster on the wall, six-pack abs etched like a sculpture. On the record, Demi has traced her own bingeing back to age eight.
In the same interview, she and Jamila compare bingeing styles, and describe moments of fullness so intense they fell onto all fours, positioned themselves like animals just to breathe a bit easier. As much as bingeing is enabled by technological advances in food production, the animalism of the experience of bingeing rejects the paradigms of mechanization we so often try to force our bodies into. The binge and purge are intensely animal experiences, organic and orgiastic, primal. That we use our most animal impulses to hack our desires for a body that seems superhuman underscores the impossibility of true optimization for anyone but an influencer who exists only on Instagram. A few weeks ago, Miquela actually posted a confession on the platform. Posing in a skintight bodysuit with her friend and fellow CGI creation Bermuda, Miquela captioned the photo: “Wanna know a secret? ROBOTS DON’T HAVE TASTE BUDS! The only thing @bermudiasbae can make is reservations.” The perfect girl eats and remains thin, shops and remains solvent, has a hardy American appetite and hardly any fat, all of which is easier said than done, and easiest when your body is built from pixels, constantly under digital construction, and free of those unruly human drives. For those of us without a team of developers to turn to for an upgrade, those of us stuck with working taste buds and the body-fascist free market, bingeing and purging can feel like the closest we can get to a life hack, maybe even an undo button. But for people with bodies, hitting that undo button is dangerous. The body can only survive so many hard restarts.
This essay was originally published in our sister publication, Majuscule